September 11th, 2012
I suspect this will be the hardest episode this series for me to write about. Normally there is something interesting to say about an episode, even if only about how it failed. And more importantly, normally I have something *different* to say from what other people are saying. But this time, my reaction can be summed up in the same sentence everyone else is using:
It’s not as bad as I expected, apart from the ending.
Chris Chibnall is a terrible writer. You can tell this, because in a recent
Pravda Doctor Who Magazine he was referred to as a genius four times, and they reserve that word for the worst of the worst. In fact, the consensus among fans is that Chibnall may be the worst writer ever to have worked on the show. There are a number of flaws that show up over and again in Doctor Who writers — occasional misogyny, a belief that the most cliched ‘sci fi’ ideas ever are new and original, a love of violence for its own sake, pointless continuity references and plots that don’t hold together. What these all have in common is that they go against the spirit of the show at its best, and Chibnall exhibits all these flaws pretty much every time he sits down at his keyboard.
But this time, he was, for the most part, competent, even quite good.
This week’s story was, of course, flawed, but its flaws were all flaws that are common to the whole Moffat-produced series — scientific terminology used more or less at random, the only new female character being beautiful, sarcastic and violent (there is nothing wrong with this as a type of character, but under Moffat the men get a choice of about four personalities, while the women have to just share the one between them. This is still better than much genre TV, though, where the idea of women having a personality at all is apparently dangerously modern), and an obstacle is put in place and immediately resolved (the ship needing two pilots with similar genes) when neither the obstacle nor the resolution actually make much sense or advance the story much. The attempts at humour pretty much all fall flat, too, though Mark Williams manages to at least put in a Mark Williams performance. I’m also sick of this version of the Doctor seeming childishly terrified of sexually aggressive women.
But most of the faults can be handwaved, or even work to the story’s advantage. Amy saying she ‘learned all about’ Nefertiti at school seems fairly unlikely, for example — there’s not much *to* learn about Nefertiti, because as far as we can tell there’s little she actually did other than support her husband as he temporarily transitioned Egyptian religion from a polytheistic one to monolatrous Aten-worship, which as far as I know isn’t on the national curriculum. But it’s already been established that Amy’s favourite book as a child was the story of Pandora’s Box and she has a fetish for Roman soldiers, so it’s perfectly in character.
And in some ways this story was rather better put together than we had any right to expect. Putting together two old Doctor Who concepts — the ark in space (as seen in stories like The Ark and The Ark In Space) and the Silurians — should seem obvious, but I don’t believe anyone’s told it before. On TV, the previous Silurian stories were The Silurians (where they come up from underground to try to reclaim the earth from humanity, and the two races conflict while the Doctor despairs and wishes there was another way), The Sea Devils (where they come up from under the sea to try to reclaim the earth from humanity, and the two races conflict while the Doctor despairs and wishes there was another way), Warriors Of The Deep (where they come up from underground and under the sea to try to reclaim the earth from humanity, and the two races conflict while the Doctor despairs and wishes there was another way) and Chibnall’s own The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (where they come up from underground to try to reclaim the earth from humanity, and the two races conflict while the Doctor despairs and wishes there was another way). Having an actual second plot for the Silurians is as unexpected as Status Quo discovering a fourth chord.
The story also makes use of its space far better than last week’s Dalek story. The Dalek story was a series of disconnected events that could have taken place anywhere (Prison Of The Daleks, Holiday Camp Of The Daleks, School Of The Daleks) or with any monster (Asylum Of The Cybermen, Asylum Of The Krotons, Asylum Of The Zygons) and with little or no motivation for any of the actions. By contrast here the Doctor has a clear goal, the setting arises naturally from the monster-of-the-week (the Silurians), the obstacles in the Doctor’s way mostly (though not all) arise naturally from the setting, and some of the solutions to problems are actual solutions requiring thought, rather than just waving a magic wand. One solution (throwing the ball for the triceratops to follow) is even set up earlier in the episode!
That may sound like damning with faint praise, but this kind of basic attention to craft is missing from much of the post-2005 series. If you were to show this and last week’s Dalek episode to someone who doesn’t know the show, they’d be able to tell that they were written to the same formula, and that at least one writer was consciously modelling himself on the other. Ask which was the multiple Hugo Award winner who had also created several critically acclaimed drama and comedy series, and which was universally regarded as one of the worst writers ever to work in TV, and I would be very surprised if they didn’t identify Chibnall as the better writer.
For the most part it’s a thoroughly unexceptionable, mildly entertaining piece of children’s fantasy TV. It’s pieced together out of bits of old Doctor Who episodes and Jurassic Park, but that’s not a bad thing.
The only problem — and one so bad it wrecks the whole thing — is that at the climax the Doctor deliberately and cold-bloodedly commits murder.
Now, admittedly, the person he murders is a mass-murderer himself, a thoroughly vile character with no redeeming traits, but until now the Doctor has never before killed in cold blood. He’s allowed villains to destroy themselves when their evil plans backfire, he’s killed in self-defence, he’s killed to defend his friends from immediate threats to their life, and he’s even blown up ships full of Daleks or Cybermen, though we can assume that both those were acts of war. But here, he deliberately made a fleet of missiles target themselves on a spaceship containing a defenceless man, who presented no physical threat and who it was entirely possible for him to save. That goes against the morality of the Doctor as established in pretty much every story since 1964 (he might have done it in 1963, before he mellowed out a bit).
Now, there have been a few fan explanations for this. The first is “oh, they’re obviously doing an arc where the Doctor becomes darker, in order to realise that he shouldn’t be darker and become lighter again”. As Nick Barlow said on twitter, “‘oh, the arc will deal with it and make sense’ is the meta version of ‘I’ll explain later’. ” On top of this, it’s the same explanation fans have been consistently using for every morally repugnant act the Doctor has committed since about 2007, and it’s not been true so far. Even if it were true, if you keep doing the ‘get darker just to get lighter’ story, you end up turning the Doctor into Batman, grimungritty version.
The second explanation is “it’s meant to show why the Doctor needs companions, to be his moral compass” — except he’s spent a handful of months away from Rory and Amy, and spent much of that time with other people. This interpretation turns the show from being one about someone who has spent thousands of years roaming the universe righting wrongs, ending injustice and bringing down corrupt governments armed with nothing more than his intellect and moral courage, to being one about a moral and intellectual simpleton who needs a permanent live-in carer watching over him all the time to remind him that blowing people up is wrong. Again, that doesn’t mean it isn’t the intended interpretation, but it is rather a departure from the programme I like.
And finally, there’s a suggestion made in passing by Millennium Dome in his review, where he suggests that this was the result of the effects of the Dalek nanites from last week’s episode. This has the advantages of a) being set up by something actually in the text, rather than something people are wanting to read in without evidence and b) actually excusing the murder, rather than leaving the Doctor as a murderer (no-one could be blamed for a murder commited because their mind was being controlled by Dalek nanites).
I think the third of those options is the most likely of them, but I wouldn’t put more than a 30% probability even on that. That’s partly because no-one in the episode expressed any disapproval of the Doctor’s actions — and normally, if the Doctor does something that we’re intended to think is wrong, or at least questionable, a companion character will act as a voice of the audience and berate him. But also, Millennium has a history of coming up with resolutions to problems set up in Doctor Who stories that are much more interesting than whatever is finally seen on screen.
I suspect, though, that this is just a series that has lost its moral centre to the point that no-one involved in the story thought to question whether its ‘hero’ should be murdering people or not. I hope I’m wrong…